Diversity and Community Engagement

The University of Mississippi

Community Chats – Afton Thomas

“Nothing is impossible.” – Afton Thomas

Our team sits down with Afton Thomas, associate director of programs for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, on this episode of Community Chats. At the Center, Thomas works to create synergy across institutions not just on the university’s campus but throughout the LOU community and beyond by documenting and elevating the history of all Mississippians. Tune in to hear how she and the rest of the team at the Center are working to keep the voices and history of all Mississippians alive.

Originally from St. Louis, Thomas’s educational background is in theater, something she is still passionate about, but her love for community has led her to serve not only through theater education but also through hospitality management, project coordination, and human resources. In the LOU community, Thomas has served as project coordinator for the Southern Foodways Alliance, on a steering committee for Leadership Lafayette, and even with our very own Jody Holland as a board member of the Lafayette Oxford Foundation for Tomorrow.

The Center for the Study of Southern Culture was founded in the 1970s to “investigate, document, interpret, and teach about the American South.” Under the umbrella of the Center are three institutions: Living Blues magazine, the Southern Documentary Project, and the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization founded in 1999 as a result of southern studies master’s thesis that Thomas has worked closely with in the past. “To think that an institute can grow from a project with an academic program, I think, is beautiful,” Thomas said.

As associate director of programs, Thomas describes herself as a “yes person,” always willing to undergo new projects and collaborate on new ideas. “I rarely say ‘no’ to a thing,” Thomas said, “Nothing is impossible.” This is a mindset, according to Thomas, that makes the position exciting but also challenging. “I had a Christmas list, and I had to be kind of reeled back in,” Thomas said “Not having enough time to do all the ideas we have [is a challenge].”

Despite this challenge, she says the biggest reward is learning something new every day on the job. “The learning never stops,” Thomas said, “I’m inspired by the work [our students] do and try to find ways to elevate it.” Her colleagues, students, and partnerships are always pushing forth new ideas and initiatives that will highlight and elevate the history of the people of Mississippi.

Currently, the Center is collaborating with community engaged projects like Behind the Big House, a project we featured last September through our Faculty Lunch & Learn series. They are also collaborating with the Black Power at Ole Miss Task Force, which highlights the 1970 protests on the UM campus and the subsequent arrests and suspension of the Ole Miss Eight, and the Invisible Histories project which aims to document the forgotten voices of Mississippi’s LGBTQ+ community.

Thomas says that she is looking forward to the fall, also, as the Center is already planning even more projects including Mississippi Voices, a three-day event in collaboration with the Ford Center that includes a one-woman show that brings to life the story of Fannie Lou Hamer.

“We are resource rich,” Thomas said, as a final message. “We are fortunate, in the LOU area, to have so many resources and great people.” She commends the nonprofits and historians working constantly to lift up, educate, and improve our community.

To keep up to date on ongoing and future projects from the Center, visit their website southernstudies.olemiss.edu and follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@southernstudies across all platforms). You can also contact Thomas directly at amthoma4@olemiss.edu.

Watch this episode and all other episodes of Community Chats on our Facebook (@UMengaged) and YouTube (Engaged UM), and listen to our podcast on Spotify and iTunes. Make sure to like, comment, and share this series as we continue to highlight community leaders across the LOU area.


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